Between the halls at the India Art Fair, under the open sky, people are gathered around a strange yet intriguing installation. Wheat sacks lean on each other with hundreds of postcards sitting on them. People are perplexed, dumbfounded, even amused. But everyone is intrigued. Manisha Gera Baswani’s installation ‘Postcards from Home’ is that rare thing — an earthly assemblage in the middle of an otherwise shiny and rigid art fair. It has the earthliness of the mela, the touchability of the street and the ruggedness of our entire past. There is no shortage of interest, as people gawk and ask a range of questions. Not only is Postcards from Home interactive, and therefore millennial, it does something unique — it lets you take a piece of the work home.
Baswani meets me on the side, continuously being showered with glances and greetings. “I started photographing artists in their homes, in their studios, sixteen years ago. I am a painter, but I have always been a photographer as well. Without me really knowing, this exercise turned into a project in itself – to document Indian artists,” she says. Along with Indian artists, Baswani started photographing Pakistani artists after visiting the neighbours during a solo exhibition in Karachi, in 2015. The reason, she says, is unclear even to her. “I’m just organic that way. I just wanted to,” she says. The conversations that she had with the Pakistani artists made her realise that a majority of them had roots in India, or the Partition that cut through it. Both of her own parents fled Pakistan during the Partition. Stories of which, she says, have always been around the household.
Each sack of wheat placed as part of her installation has postcards with images of artists on them, on the back, their personal stories or those of their family related to the Partition. “A voice inside me had started to tell me I needed to do something with this. So I sent messages to Punjabi and Sindhi communities. Thank god for the age of technology, I thought. People who could not write, sent voice recordings. I could connect with so many people, listen to their stories. The response was fantastic,” Baswani says. In a way, hers is a project millennial in its process, but historic and vintage in its relevance. The Partition has been subject of a million artistic imaginations, but her’s is as deceptively simple as it is affecting. Why? Because it lets you become a part of itself. “I wanted people to know these artists and the stories that not everyone asks of them. When have we ever approached an artist with the intention of knowing about his history, or the circumstances that have shaped their family, or who they are,” she says.
As an exploration of the Partition itself, Baswani’s installation offers heartening personal narratives, of migration, struggle, even loss. These stories seamlessly travel either side of the border. After a point, it becomes impossible to segregate, or even ‘nationalise’. Then there are moments, experiences that Baswani says were indescribable in the making of it all. “At a shoot in Lahore, an artist was supposed to have a prayer for someone. The prayer was in Gurbani. Because that is how they prayed before the Partition. How does one describe that feeling, it was overwhelming,” she says. After having travelled to Pakistan, and undertaking a project that personalises an otherwise thick space, Baswani says she has had a transformative experience. “Had I not crossed over, I would have never known any of this. I am happy that I can carry these stories in both directions, either side of a border that seems porous after having experienced it,” she adds.
Of the 47 artists she has documented almost half of them Pakistani, some, like Satish Gujral, have experienced the Partition first-hand. Others have inherited it. To add to that, this is also a unique attempt at documenting artists – a blind-spot in our culture. “I have received nothing but love from everyone who has participated in this,” Baswani says. Naturally, people who have seen the exhibit at the fair, she says, have expressed the desire to offer their own stories. “I have already had some people tell me they would like to share their own stories. Two of them, I have already decided to record. I don’t know what I will do with them. But for now, this project is taking a shape of its own,” she says. Her project has already been shown in Lahore and has come to Delhi for the first time.
As we wrap our conversation, a fresh stock of postcards has arrived. People have walked around, read the cards and filed a number of them into the pockets of their backpacks. It is a strange, yet heartening sight. The possibility of taking a piece of the work home, maybe learning from it or keeping it for memory is decidedly uncommon. The wheat Baswani says she chose because it has two meanings. “It is called kanak in Lahore which to them means gold. In India, we know it is used to refer to wheat. And the sacks stand against each other because the two combined become that rich harvest of life, culture and history that we all crave.” On a personal level, Baswani hasn’t enjoyed working on something quite as much. “My mom said ye project tujhse khuda ne banwaya hai [God has made you work on this project], I truly believe it. I’m just the tool here. It has found me,” she says. Before I leave her sight she is surrounded by schoolchildren, captivated, curious. It is now their turn to ask questions.
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Updated Date: Feb 05, 2019 09:43:25 IST